Top exex show confab some optimism

NBC Universal topper Jeff Zucker was cautiously upbeat on the morning after the Peacock launched its bold 10 p.m. experiment with Jay Leno.

Zucker, News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch and Disney chief financial officer Tom Staggs were among the biz bigwigs who spoke Tuesday on the first day of Goldman Sachs’ two-day Communacopia confab in Gotham.

Murdoch got confab attendees’ attention by declaring that the Wall Street Journal would begin charging BlackBerry users to view the Journal on their mobile devices. Staggs talked up the immediate potential of the Mouse’s Marvel acquisition to its consumer products division.

Zucker, meanwhile, crowed about Leno’s strong debut perf.

“Anyone who was part of last night was clearly thrilled,” he told investors at a media conference in New York of the premiere of “The Jay Leno Show” Monday at 10 p.m., where it ruled the night.

NBC’s move to dispense with scripted fare at that hour was greeted by the television industry as akin to a mad scientist tinkering with the cosmos. But from NBC’s point of view, five nights a week of “Jay Leno” is much cheaper, and the new primetime strip has the added benefit of preventing one of the Peacock’s stars from moving to a competitor.

“We had Jay Leno, and we weren’t ready for him to move across the street and compete with us,” Zucker said. “It was offensive and defensive.” NBC’s lineup, which has been in the doldrums for the past four years, desperately needs some juice.

He acknowledged the show “does not command the (ad) rates a one-hour drama would” but said “the advertising response has actually been quite good. … Advertisers have wanted to be part of it.”

As for the broader TV biz, which has been hard hit by a sharp economic downturn over the past 18 months, Zucker said, “There are signs that it’s a little healthier,” and local advertising is stabilizing.

He hinted at further belt-tightening at the film studio given the sharp drop in DVD sales.

“I think the biggest issue in that business today is the home entertainment marketplace … and I think that’s going to cause everyone in the film business to take a look at their cost structure (and) will require more prudent business decisions on the film side.”

Asked about the future of Vivendi’s 20% stake in NBC U, Zucker declined to discuss it but noted that the French conglom’s CEO Jean-Bernard Levy was scheduled to speak at the conference on Wednesday and may shed some light.

“Vivendi’s been a fantastic partner. I cannot say enough about the job Jean-Bernard has done,” Zucker said.

Murdoch’s moves

In his remarks, Murdoch continued to push his campaign to squeeze more revenue out of the online and mobile sectors by charging users for access to newspaper content.

Murdoch said Tuesday that the Wall Street Journal will begin charging BlackBerry users $2 a week to access the newspaper or $1 a week if they already subscribe to the paper.

“We’re living in a very complicated world in which news is more valuable than it’s even been. Look at the people watching news channels for which they pay, and reading the Wall Street Journal, for which they pay. If we were Newspaper Corp. (vs. News Corp.), I would say yes, we would change” the company’s mix of assets, Murdoch said in response to a question about whether the company should still be in the newspaper biz. But “we believe in digital delivery” of news content, Murdoch added.

Murdoch also said News Corp. is considering the possibility of adding subscription and pay-per-view offerings to online video site Hulu, which it jointly owns with NBC Universal and Disney.

Disney wary of vid distrib

Disney’s Staggs said the Mouse was still wary of the nascent “TV Everywhere” online vid distribution initiative embraced by Time Warner, Comcast and other content players. Although Disney was a pioneer in online distribution of shows via iTunes and, and it more recently became an equity partner in Hulu, the company remains selective about its online distrib partners.

“A new opportunity to reach consumers is very attractive,” Staggs said, “but we want to do so in a way that delivers proper compensation (to us) for that value.”

Generally speaking, Staggs said revenues at the Mouse’s divisions are starting to show signs of a stability, suggesting that the economy is beginning to turn the corner. He said the $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment would first begin to pay financial rewards from consumer products, rather than film adaptations.

While Disney is putting the finishing touches on its takeover of Marvel, Staggs anticipates that Disney’s consumer products division will benefit first from the deal through the exploitation of characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man in the form of toys, videogames, books and other merchandise. Such efforts should be especially fruitful overseas, considering it’s a newer market for Marvel, and Disney generates 60% of its consumer products biz from international sales.

As for the integration of those superheroes into Disney’s theme parks, Staggs had previously said it’s unlikely they’ll show up at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla., given how Marvel’s characters are already prominent at Universal’s Islands of Adventure park there. U also has rights to Spider-Man at its parks in Japan.

Disney will instead focus on launching Marvel attractions elsewhere as it explores “how best to take advantage of” its ownership of the comicbook company, he said.

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